Hagen Lee and Robbie Stone are a bit of an odd couple.
A former Samsung business development manager, the Korean-American Lee can ramble passionately, if obliviously, about his mobile app’s many features and “organizational DNA.” Stone, who has the air (and look) of a precocious teenager, spent the last ten years in Hollywood. When we met them, Stone was in black, round, thick-framed glasses and elephant skin cowboy boots. Lee was in running shoes and a WeHUB sweatshirt.
WeHUB is their company. It’s a mobile app that hopes to be the only messaging app you’ll ever need.
It’s why they’re living in Germantown together, sharing a tiny room that’s covered in WeHUB T-shirts and fliers.
They got a good deal on the room, said Stone, 33.
While they might have domestic life figured out (“I cook, he does the dishes,” Lee said), Lee, 34, jokes that calls from his wife, who lives and works in North Jersey, are becoming less and less frequent.
The pair, along with their 20-person engineering team that’s based in Seoul, South Korea, released the Android and iOS versions of their app just a few months ago and have already landed 20,000 users, the bulk of which are in South Korea and the U.S., Lee said. (Why South Korea? Lee’s childhood friend and CTO Sangwon Moon lives there. It’s also a “huge benefit because the South Korean technology market is very competitive and consumers are tough so it builds a strong [company] DNA,” Lee said.)
The app is a result of hundreds of interviews that Lee did with “sorority sisters,” skateboarders at Franklin’s Paine, restaurant workers and more.
He asked them what they liked about messaging apps and what they wished messaging apps could do. The final product takes cues from other apps (you can send temporary messages a la Snapchat and “like” a message a la GroupMe) and includes some features exclusive to WeHUB (you can recall a message you’ve already sent, even if someone saw it already, send encrypted messages and have side conversations in group chats).
As a user acquisition ploy, users can unlock more features when they add friends to the app.
The company is backed by high-profile angel investors, including Wharton professor David Reibstein, who cofounded ecommerce company Shopzilla and was on the board of basketball apparel company AND1, an unnamed top exec at luxury brand LVMH and former McAfee chairman and CEO George Samenuk. WeHUB is closing a $1.2 million round now, Lee said, and has $800,000 committed. That’s on top of the $300,000 seed round they previously closed.
The WeHUB guys also do contract work to pay the bills, building mobile apps for big Korean companies like hotel company The Shilla, Kia and SK Telecom (whom Lee described as the AT&T of Korea). They started out this way, before raising capital, and have continued to do so, though not as much as before.
“We didn’t want to just take investment dollars and build one thing because then your organizational DNA is soft,” Lee said.
In terms of making money, they envision WeHUB becoming a platform for devices. Messaging apps like Line and South Korea messaging app Kakao take a cut of in-app purchases from games played on the app. WeHUB hopes to do that but for devices (think: a laundry machine messaging you when your laundry is done).
But, as Lee put it, “we can’t do that unless we’re big ourselves.”
To start, Lee and Stone are working hard to market the app to Penn students. They flier Penn’s campus, throw open-bar events for their super users at Smokey Joe’s and are hosting a Penn treasure hunt on the app. It’s the only marketing campaign they’ve executed so far, they said.
Lee, who got his Wharton MBA last spring, said he’d like to stay in Philly and grow his team here but it’s getting harder and harder to do so. Venture capitalists keep telling him he needs to move to Silicon Valley or New York, he said.
“There’s this bias, that all good tech things come out of California,” Lee said. “That’s bullshit. I would say, fuck ’em. I like the East Coast.”-30-